Why Paganism Hasn’t Failed…Yet.

John Halstead has written an article around a table lifted from the anthology Deep Green Resistance*. It’s a great piece: go ahead and read it.

I’d say that’s about 2/3 of a perfect assessment of modern Paganism and the current Pagan community…at least in the US, where I am familiar with it. He’s not wrong, and his critiques are apt…painful and embarrassing as they may be for many American Pagans.

John orients his piece around this table:

Now, I think one of the most incisive and true critiques in this chart are that much of modern Paganism has “adolescent values of a youth movement”: black-and-white thinking, knee-jerk resistance to authorities and moral precepts, and a desire to “shock” conventionality just for the sake of doing so.

But this chart, too, says something about the so-called “oppositional” culture.

Being “oppositional” is actually a clinical term. It is encoded in the diagnosis “Oppositional/defiant disorder”, which is demonstrated mostly by people who were abused by authority figures as children.

Being “oppositional” and “resistant” are not virtues in and of themselves, and this is a lesson many who embrace such terms have failed to learn. It is too easy to kid yourself that you’re a hero just because you have a fist in the air.

The point is to be transformational. And being transformational involves embracing some things, rejecting others. Fighting like hell for the best possible outcome, but then not shitting on the inevitable partial loaf that reality produces. Calling that a small victory, and then gearing up for the next fight to make it better.

In short, transformational culture lives beyond self-absorbed, adolescent self indulgence, and beyond reflexive, adolescent rebellion. Beyond childish all-or-nothing demands. Transformational culture understands nuance, which makes it adult.

I’d suggest that the chart should look more like this:

Now, that doesn’t mean that the critique of most modern Pagan culture isn’t apt. Sadly, it is. But there are plenty of voices in this broadly drawn community who are neither “alternative” nor “oppositional”: who stand for the hard work–internal AND external–of changing the world for the better. I don’t agree with these voices on all points but that doesn’t matter. They are Pagans of integrity, and voices for transformation in the world.

John isn’t wrong about his diagnosis. But his prescription doesn’t really address the nature of human motivation. We’re not going to just drop all effort at growth and improvement of our lot in the name of The Cause. That’s zealotry; the likes of Pol Pot leveraged exactly that, to disastrous ends.

No. We must value the individual, the society and the Earth. We must understand that we have responsibilities to each. We must speak truth to destructive power and fight to break its grip, while not lumping all power together and labeling it as destructive.

More than anything, we must understand context. There is a time for playfulness and outrageousness and radical self-expression; there is also a time for coming to meet our fellow humans where they are, and engaging them on those terms. That is key to the art of persuasion, and transformation cannot occur without moving hearts and minds through persuasion. And there is a time to square our shoulders and simply refuse to cooperate with what destroys our world and enslaves its people.

It’s a complicated world and our strategies must, therefore, also be complex. Having a nuanced, adult understanding both of ourselves and the politics of our societies will enable us to find pressure points, leverage points we can flex to accomplish positive change.

And the spirituality of the Sacred Earth is a driving force behind this. Opposition is not enough to create a better world; that can only come about through activism rooted in love.

And what better object of our love is there than That Which Brings Forth All Life, which sustains and feeds and warms and protects each of us worldly creatures?

The Holy Earth, turning in space, home to all of us, is both object and subject of our activism for deeper meaning, more profound joy, and societal transformation.

That is the Paganism I pursue and promote.


*Note: this book and perspective have been deemed highly questionable, at the least, by people I trust, citing them as both ableist (given that it calls for the end of industrial civilization that many of us, including myself, rely on to survive), and also transphobic, so be aware that these critiques are out there. I haven’t read it and don’t plan to, and I honestly don’t know whether John subscribes to their philosophies or simply cribbed the chart from the book as a kind of one-off.

Soil and Sky; Love and Joy

There are those who try to hijack Paganism in the name of their bigotry and their hatred: who crow “blood and soil!” as if that means something. As if it is anything more than an adolescent boy’s angry braying.

Like most big lies, the “blood and soil” of neo-Nazis–some of whom describe themselves as “folkish” Pagans or heathens– contains a tiny kernel of truth buried in its pile of garbage. Because there is nothing wrong with a sense of allegiance to land and to family.

The problem is in how right-wing haters narrowly define land and family: they value only this land where “we” came from…and “our people” is only people of our ethnicity.

It’s nonsense, of course. And it reveals a many-layered onion of insecurity, resentment, rage, ignorance, projection and failure to grow.

You can tell by the emotional tone of a religious path whether it is worthy or not. The rage, repression, humorlessness and hatred of fundamentalist Abrahamic religions and “folkish” Paganism alike are clear indicators that they are not paths to joy, liberation, or right living. Our Atheopagan Principle #5–Perspective–makes it clear that for us, a sense of humor is not peripheral: it is essential, so we can keep a humble perspective about ourselves and our journeys.

To us, the soil and sky that are the birthright of every creature on Earth are not grounds for excluding and defensiveness and hatred. No; they are the inspiration for never-ending joy and love, for wonder and amazement.

And we welcome all who would share this awe, this kindness, this generosity.

The philosopher Karl Popper demonstrated in the 1950s that the one thing a tolerant culture cannot and must not tolerate is intolerance, for if it does, intolerance will eventually become its norm. So we should be vigilant, in the Pagan community, not to countenance bigotry and hatred in the name of pluralism: it is the antithesis of pluralism.

Atheopaganism is no different, and we have to be vigilant in protecting our kind, warm community from hatred. When people apply to join the Facebook group, for example, we not only consider their answers to the application questions, we look at their profiles. If we find signs of fascism or bigotry or insensitivity to the experience of the oppressed, we’ll take a pass. Our events have clear and explicit written nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies that every attendee must endorse.

I contend that the Pagan community at large should be doing the same. Conferences should (and many are, I should be clear) exclude participation by such “folkish” bigoted applicants. If they can’t agree to adopt some basic decent values, we are under no obligation to let them play in our spaces.

“Folkish” Paganism/heathenism is a stain on our religious movement. We are well within our rights to shun it, even if it technically meets some of the generally accepted criteria for what constitutes Paganism.

Intermediaries

When I think about Paganism, the first thing that comes to my mind is reverence for Nature–for the physical Earth. For Life, here and now.

And I think that’s true of a lot of theistic Pagans, too.

For Pagans–theists and Atheopagans alike–direct access to the Sacred* is a core aspect of our spiritual experience. We need no intermediaries–unlike, say, the Abrahamic monotheisms, where the sacred rites must be performed by a trained man (usually) who serves as an intercessionary between their god and ordinary humans.

In Paganism, on the other hand, subjective personal “gnosis” is often presented by theists as evidence of their gods’ reality.

It seems to me that this presents a problem with the idea of Pagan priesthood. What, exactly, is the point of a priest/ess if everyone has their own direct pipeline to the divine, or the Sacred?

I know that for many theist Pagans, there is a belief that they have been “selected” by one or more god/desses, and are thus priesthood of them. But that seems to me to be more of a claim of a special relationship than of being a conduit or intercessionary. Or maybe a declaration that the person is a catalyst, an organizer of rites to honor that particular god/dess. Certainly it seems to be bound up in the concept of personal identity for many Pagans.

I could be wrong. I’m not a theist and I don’t live in their worldview.

As an Atheopagan, though, I go farther still. it isn’t just priest/esses that are unnecessary intermediaries between the actual Sacred and the humans who seek it. It is gods themselves, the anthropomorphized impressions of the character of the Sacred.

But not for us.

Give me the lightning, not a god of lightning. Give me the sunrise, and not the goddess thereof.

I believe in literally NO intermediaries between the direct revelation of the Sacred and the individual human. You don’t need priest/esses for it, and you don’t need gods for it, either. However incomprehensible they may be, I would rather be baffled by the Universe’s wonders than reassured by a human-created mask someone placed on them to make them more relatable.

But…um, ahem: Atheopaganism has ordained clerics.

So what’s up with that?

In my view, being an Atheopagan cleric isn’t an honorific, nor an identity: it’s a function. It is somewhat equivalent to being someone who organizes an outing for a group going out on the town, and then serves as their designated driver: clerics have agreed to do the logistics and provide a support service to help their communities. Our clerics help people to celebrate the great moments in their lives, to be happier, kinder and better connected to the reality of the Sacred Earth.

It’s not a status elevation; we are all equal, we humans (and that’s why “cleric” isn’t capitalized). It’s more like a merit badge in scouting: it signifies that you have adopted certain values and learned certain skills, and you’re willing to do some work in community service.

So if you’re new to Paganism and confronted with someone who says they are a priest/ess…or even a “high” priest/ess…just know that–whatever they may think of themselves–this mostly means organizing and administrative duties, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to go through them to have an experience of the Sacred.

Which is, after all, all around us.

All the time.


*Not the same thing as the divine.